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MacKenzie Scott gives Philly nonprofit $20M to help needy get government benefits

The donation, with no strings attached, will allow the nonprofit to work on modernizing access to government assistance programs.

A Benefits Data Trust employee, shown here before the pandemic, helps a client with benefits access. The organization received a $20 million donation from MacKenzie Scott.
A Benefits Data Trust employee, shown here before the pandemic, helps a client with benefits access. The organization received a $20 million donation from MacKenzie Scott.Read moreBenefits Data Trust

Benefits Data Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit that helps people overcome barriers to government benefits for food, housing, and health care, received a $20 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the organization announced Tuesday.

The gift allows the Center City group to “energize our thinking around how do we make the challenge of benefits access a thing of the past over the next decade.” said Trooper Sanders, chief executive of Benefits Data Trust. “That’s just an extraordinary moment. It’s both energizing and humbling.”

Having learned just several weeks ago about the gift — which comes with no restrictions or timeline on its use — BDT, which employs 340, doesn’t yet have a specific plan on what it will do with the money, Sanders said.

“Nonprofits spend a lot time doing deep-thinking proposals to even be considered for significant gifts. This sort of turns that on its head.”

Benefits Data Trust, abbreviated as BDT, was founded in 2005 by Warren Kantor, a credit card executive who wanted see whether marketing techniques used to sell people credit cards could help find seniors and others who needed help signing up for benefits. Kantor was motivated by the challenge of helping his widowed mother sign up for a prescription drug benefit.

Last year, BDT helped more than 7,900 Philadelphia households receive an estimated $30 million in benefits, the group said. They help applicants fill out forms and coordinate with state officials, for instance.

It operates in 12 states. Most recently, it launched the Michigan Benefits Center in partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

BDT had $26.6 million in total revenue in 2020, according to its audited financial statement. Its current budget is in the low-to-mid $30 million range, Sanders said. That makes $20 million a huge gift relative to its size.

BDT joins a growing list of nonprofits in the Philadelphia area benefiting from the largesse of Scott, who divorced Bezos in 2019, receiving a 4% stake in Amazon. She’s been busy giving away billions of her fortune, which Forbes now estimates at $48 billion.

Organizations in the Philadelphia region that have received donations from Scott in 2020 were Lincoln University ($20 million); the Reinvestment Fund ($20 million), which finances projects in communities long ignored by commercial banks; and Community First Fund ($10 million), which provides loans and other assistance to individuals and businesses in low-income neighborhoods.

Easter Seals Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Greater Philadelphia YMCA, and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey were also among the recipients in 2020, but details on the amounts were not available.

Last April, BDT received a $4 million, five-year grant from Pew Charitable Trusts to double its reach in Southeastern Pennsylvania. BDT said at the time that before the Pew grant, it was contacting 111,800 households in the region annually and helped 13,600 of them submit applications.

Sanders said he doesn’t know how BDT got on Scott’s radar. “They have ways of finding organizations and I’m very pleased that they found BDT,” he said.